The Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman has called on government to expand its remit to include complaints about Facebook and Google so it can provide “access to justice” for Australian users.
In its submission to Treasury, the TIO backed the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s recommendation in its final report from its Digital Platforms inquiry to establish a Digital Platforms Ombudsman to handle escalated complaints about the tech giants.
Recommendation 23 of the final report called for the establishment of an ombudsman scheme to resolve complaints and disputes with digital platform providers. It suggested the TIO was likely best placed to take on this role.
This new ombudsman would resolve complaints and disputes between consumers or small businesses and digital platforms.
It would have the ability to compel information, make binding decisions on digital platforms, order compensation and compel platforms to take down content.
“The ombudsman responsible for the ombudsman scheme would be able to resolve disputes or complaints that have not been settled through the digital platforms internal dispute resolution (IDR) procedures within a set timeframe, and would be responsible for disputes and complaints,” the ACCC report said.
“The ACCC considers that it is likely to be efficient for an existing ombudsman to resolve complaints about digital platforms, rather than creating new ombudsman or organisation.”
In its submission to the federal government’s consultations on the ACCC’s final report, the TIO said it was the “logical vehicle” to undertake the digital platforms ombudsman role, and that it would be a “timely alignment” with the government’s current discourse around the digital space.
“The time is right for Australia to introduce an effective complaint handling framework for users of these services and for the digital platforms industry,” the TIO submission said.
“There are growing community and user expectations that these services should provide an acceptable solution for raising and escalating complaints,” it said.
There is no current mechanism for Australian users to escalate complaints about digital platforms if they cannot be resolved through the IDR, which are centred on automated responses and decision-making algorithms, the TIO said.
“There are no formalised accessible resolution pathways to help achieve a resolution to a complaint where the digital platforms’ IDR has failed. Scanning the online environment reveals widespread frustration with digital platform complaint processes,” it said.
“While complaint handling frameworks are well established in other essential service areas, digital platform users appear to have limited pathways to resolve complaints.”
The TIO already receives complaints about the likes of Facebook and Google, but these are outside its current scope.
The new scheme would see the ombudsman be able to handle complaints relating to account access and control, advertising, small business search results, data access and control, identity theft and privacy concerns.
In its submission, the TIO said the digital platforms should be responsible for paying for the new scheme, similarly to how it is funded by telecommunications sector stakeholders.
It would also have to work with government, regulators and consumer and industry groups around the design and scope of the ombudsman scheme.
“Regulators must be sufficiently resourced and have appropriate powers to pursue enforcement action where participating organisations are not content with their obligations, and to support systemic decisions,” TIO said.
“In industries where no license is needed to operate, the regulator’s powers could include the ability to issue fines or to take legal action to enforce the decisions and membership of the ombudsman scheme.”
The telco ombudsman said it was well placed to cater for the new complaints scope.
“While we would need to broaden our skills, we are experts in dispute resolution and already employ staff with the right skill sets. We invest in the continuous development of our people to empower them to be effective contributors in the rapidly changing communications industry,” it said.
The TIO wants the power to referral issues to the relevant regulator, restore pages or content to fix a mistake, issue directions for digital platforms to take down content and to delete certain data.
The government is currently consulting on the ACCC’s final digital platforms report and will be revealing its response to the recommendations by the end of the year.